I met Oscar by the pier and within minutes we were in his boat cruising between the islands around Burtonport. The weather forecast threatened heavy showers but beautiful blue skies lay ahead. Travelling through the narrow channel, we passed large modern houses on private islands with beautiful sandy coves hidden around every corner. Others lay empty, except for the odd cottage ruin. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, this channel of water was once an important gateway for the fishing industry as trawlers made their way in and out of Burtonport. Up to 40 large vessels had been registered in the small village until the sector was hit by declining numbers in white fish. Today, the waterway is busy with regular car ferries travelling to Arranmore island. We turned out into the open bay, interspersed with large rocks and sleeping seals. In the distance, a village of houses above a white sand beach came into view. We were approaching Inishfree. The houses here were much older, and many lay in ruin. Located 5 km from Burtonport in Donegal, this small flat island of only 200 acres had long been on my wish list.
We pulled up at a small pier on the other side of the village where a lone man stood waiting for us to arrive. A quick hello and a swap-over of the lifejacket before he hopped into the boat with Oscar and they headed back to Burtonport. I followed the green path from the pier past two car wrecks. Specks of purple, yellow and blue dotted the long grass, where wildflowers grew in abundance.
The village seemed completely empty. Some of the old farmhouses had been renovated, while others lay in ruin on the outskirts. Nestled together in one corner, the houses face towards Arranmore island out in the bay. The large hulk of its outline on the horizon contrasted sharply with this small little island. Even at this distance, I could see more signs of life on Arranmore than I could just around me. In the 2016 national census, Arranmore was supporting a population of 469 people while Inishfree recorded zero residents, not surprising after only recording 2 residents in the previous census.
From the village, the grass road veered left and the wildflower bloom was even more beautiful, including species like purple loosestrife, harebell, lady’s bedstraw, sorrel, wild carrot, tufted vetch, common centaury, willowherb, ragwort and cat’s ear to name but a few. It wasn’t long before I spotted the namesake flower of the island. Large swathes of purple heather covered the landscape as far as the eye could see. The Irish name for Inishfree is ‘Inis Fraoigh’, meaning island of heather and I had arrived during full bloom. Inishfree was abandoned in the mid 1970’s after an economic downturn and a diminishing population forced the islanders to make a move to the mainland, however there has been a small trickle of people returning to its shores during the summer months. Inishfree was one of the last islands to be connected to the electricity grid in 2000 and the event was celebrated with a gathering of the clans, with diaspora from as far away as Ohio in the US.
Further along the road, a quirky looking cottage with a red Tudor style door in a field caught my eye and I followed a narrow path towards it. There was something different about this small ruin. I wandered around the deep briars on the outside. As I peeped my head inside the back door, I noticed colourful paint on the door frames and broken tiles in a smaller room just off to the side. In I crept, half expecting to find someone still living there. It was completely abandoned. Each room now stripped, featured painted window and door frames. A bed frame sat alone in one room next to bright green mantelpiece. Briars poked through the windows and there was an eerie silence. The walls seemed to tell a story. I kept looking over my shoulder as if someone was standing behind me. This may have been one of the cottages that belonged to a group nicknamed the ‘Screamers’. In 1980, a commune called ‘Atlantis’ moved onto the island taking over some of the empty cottages, where they practiced a form of screaming therapy to eradicate repressed bad feelings. They had been living in a large house in Burtonport since 1974, much to the ire of the locals but made the move to Inishfree after receiving threats from disgruntled groups and backlash from national media. A source of great mystery to the locals, the group, mostly from the UK, remained on Inishfree until 1989.
I quickly exited the cottage and followed the road down to the old schoolhouse. It was established in 1910, with 50 students and one teacher. By 1966, only 5 students remained and the school closed for the summer holidays, never to reopen. An RTE documentary from 1966 showed footage of interviews with the islanders who were refusing to send their children to school on the mainland for fear they might get stranded over there or worse, encounter rough weather or rocks on their journey across the bay. In the end, they had to give way and within the next decade, the islanders themselves left Inishfree. Inside the beautiful old building, the floor, now mostly missing, was cluttered with junk and a few remaining school desks. A cold wind whistled through the rafters where a large raven’s nest of sticks lay like a piece of finely constructed art.
At the back of the island, I watched the black clouds rolling across the mountains on the mainland and hoped for the best. I rounded the edge of a small beach along an old bog. The black earthy soil of the bog spilled onto the beach. Where the peat met the sand, beautiful old pine tree stumps emerged from the boggy soil. There must have been woodland along this stretch of the island at one point. In the thick ledge running along the shore, exposed tree bark was visible in the dark layers. Within minutes, large drops of water hit my head and I knew it was going to be a bad one. I climbed through waist high undergrowth into the side of a cottage ruin and pinned myself against the gable wall, shielding myself from the worst of the rain. The torrential shower eventually passed after 20 minutes and the sun re-emerged as if nothing had happened. I was soaked through.
I thought I could make a full circle of the island but every which way I tried, I ran into obstacles like wet marsh, fences and thick heather. In the end I circled back, after seeing more black clouds rolling in above the mountains across the bay. I passed another empty cottage, just sitting there with the door open, as if the residents had suddenly upped and left in the middle of the night. It was the only shelter for a long stretch. A heavy rumble of thunder on the mainland prompted me to make a decision and I gave Oscar a quick call. I thought it better to sit on a boat in heavy rain rather than spending half an hour dodging the bad weather inside a ghostly cottage. It was a short visit to Inishfree but a very rewarding one at that.